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Daniel Fuchs' Low Company

Fuchs (1909-93) was a screenwriter and novelist. In the1930s, he wrote three novels about Jewish people struggling in Brooklyn._Low Company_, set in “Neptune Beach” (Coney Island), was published in 1937, and Fuchs wrote the film script for its adaptation as “The Gangster” (1947). Irving Howe: "He showed such a rich gift for fictional portraiture of Jewish life that, given sustained work and growth of mind, he might have written [Brooklyn’s] still-uncreated comedie humaine.”

The film was well titled—it might have been an equally good title for the book. Shubunka, a racketeer, is the dead center of both. He is, in both, a fighter up from the tenement. The picture in his apartment (in the film) shows a mystical, foggy struggle of some sort, with what looks like the predatory souls one reads of in Dante’s Inferno, or the demons in Jewish folk lore and Yiddish stories. He is a lonely, suspicious figure, for good reasons. His crew of strong arm artists, loan sharks, madams, porno distributors, bookies, and bar proprietors have to be kept satisfied. And all of a sudden, they shun him. A corporation of mob bosses has moved in, and Shubunka is “marked lousy.” The latter is used to challenges from lone wolf small timers muscling in. The Syndicate has more cops and pols than he ever could. Their torpedoes are far scarier too.

There is a scene where a desperate gambler accosts Shubunka, looking for a handout. Shubunka can afford it, but he does not shell out. He has to keep to the rules—I give when I get, or else. In the novel, it is clear that he senses the injustice of his credo. After all, he has made his pile by preying on the addictions of Coney’s low company.
The film is very different in its treatment of Shubunka. He is played by Barry Sullivan, has a blonde Venus singer girlfriend, and has a mythical confidence. In the novel, he is fat, unhealthy, ugly, and has an indefinite middle European inflection to his speech. In both media, he is unable to relax enough to trust anyone, and exists (to the despair of his girlfirend Nancy in the movie) completely alone. She tries to get him to relax on the beach, and he lies flat on the sand. Sullivan here looks not cool but jumpy, almost afraid of Nancy.

Shubunka’s apotheosis in the book is appropriately sordid—not death (he mistakes a passing car for a hitman vehicle and panics). A leading man could not be displayed so cowardly. But there is another aspect. As the car approaches, Shubunka bears his breast, beseeching the supposed gunmen to finish him. In his “unnaturally shrill voice” he cries that he would rather die than lose what he had accumulated. “At the same time he wailed that he was no good, a monster, a man who had lived on human flesh, who had deserved no pity and all suffering. . . . Murder me. It is only what I deserve.” With that, he is reduced to “a lump of human despair.”

A compassionate observer of the Neptune Beach scene advises him to leave the city. He waddles off the subway bound for Grand Central. That observer senses that to see Neptune’s low company (even the degenerate gambler, moronic soda jerk, and venal restaurant owner??) as scum is “insensible and inhuman.” Here, before his eyes, the gangster had – grown a soul. As the bereft Shubunka shuffles off to a cousin in Troy, Fuchs’ gangster joins Malamud’s Tommy Wilhelm (Seize the Day) , Sholem Asch’s Jack Chapman (God of Vengeance), and Bellow’s Frank Alpine (The Assistant)—all without sustenance or support, all alone, but with themselves.​font>
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